Neil Lennon's team must find their scoring touch at Celtic Park on Tuesday if they are to qualify for the Champions League knockout stage for the second season in a row
The notion of playing a plucky loser has never sat kindly with Neil Lennon. Even with Celtic part of an illustrious Champions League group, one filled with former winners of various forms of the European Cup for the first time, Lennon has challenged his players to progress to the knockout stage for what would be a second season in succession.
Amid the plaudits dished out to Lennon and his players for their performance in defeat to Milan at the San Siro, a counterpoint will not have escaped the attention of the Celtic manager. That is: long periods of positive play, especially at the top level, counts for nothing without the ruthless streak to go with it. Lennon is clearly an astute enough coach and experienced enough in football to recognise that.
For all that Celtic troubled a Milan side that will not rank among the great ones to don red and black, a lack of conviction in front of goal undermined their efforts. Celtic suffered due to exactly the same shortcoming that hindered them when they faced different Italian opponents, Juventus, in the knockout phase of last season's Champions League.
The only comparison between Greenock Morton's visit to Celtic Park and the upcoming arrival of Barcelona is that both are cup matches and both were scheduled on a Tuesday. Yet Celtic showed glimpses of their Milan failing when tumbling out of the Scottish League Cup to lower league opposition; even 26 corners and virtually incessant pressure could not yield a single goal over 120 minutes.
Morton's victory may simply be the kind of freak result which thankfully renders Scottish football not as predictable as many make out. In Celtic's case, it was the first major upset since Ross County bundled them out of the Scottish Cup when Lennon was a caretaker manager.
Lennon is merely the latest Celtic manager to discover that domestic trebles are rare: since the Northern Irishman was appointed to his current post permanently, in 2010, he has claimed the Scottish Cup twice but found the League Cup unattainable.
In Fraser Forster, Lennon has a goalkeeper who has proven himself highly adept in the European environment. Roy Hodgson's apparent failure to be convinced by the former Newcastle player is bemusing.
At centre-half, the recent recruit Virgil van Dijk looks the most capable Celtic have had in that position for a considerable time. Scott Brown has matured into that rare commodity – a Scottish football player who looks readily at home in the Champions League.
With that spine of the team in place, it falls on those in more advanced positions – be it Georgios Samaras, Anthony Stokes, Teemu Pukki or Kris Commons – to produce goals in the environment where wastefulness is a highly damaging trait. Barcelona, indeed, excel in battering teams into submission even when offering glimpses of hope earlier in matches.
The obvious explanation for any lack of Celtic potency can be found in the sale of Gary Hooper to Norwich City. Yet the general scoring record of Stokes and Commons – the latter combines potency with a wonderful, creative touch – in particular highlights the fact that Lennon has players at his disposal who should have confidence in front of goal. Early glimpses of Pukki and the Finn's success on the international stage should also be encouraging for Celtic.
Against Barcelona, it is clear that defensive obduracy is essential. Celtic must also prove that a failure to combine that with a clinical edge at the other end of the field will not regress into bad habits. Should that very shortcoming continue, Lennon's qualification quest will be unceremoniously halted.